Life Among the Terranauts
by Caitlin Horrocks
Issue #144 • January 15th, 2011•Buy Now!
Edited by Tanya Rey
We all have our favorite places: Campbell lies on the beach while Esparza takes the dinghy out on the ocean. Park’s in the lab, Bhatnagar’s in the savanna. No one hangs out in the swamp, because that’s the bio-remediation site. Wastewater treatment. I can appreciate the science, but I don’t want to hike there. Igor and I, we’re below decks. We roam the tunnels because they’re something real, real pipes, real intake and outflow and monitoring stations. We trade the bleached light above ground, the desert sun pouring in past white-painted steel girders and triple-layered glass, for the concrete comfort of mechanism. We don’t need the labels—Desert Basement, Upper Rainforest, Ocean Filtration—to know where we are. We have been in NovaTerra for 542 days and when I stand in the blast of air below the habitat cooling system I think I can last for the 188 more. At night Igor and I go to the North Lung and listen to our voices reverberate in the dark. It feels like a church, peaceful and echoing. A giant temple of nothing but air.
Caitlin Horrocks’ debut short story collection, This Is Not Your City, is forthcoming from Sarabande Books. Stories from the collection appear in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009, The Pushcart Prize XXXV, The Paris Review, Tin House, and elsewhere. Her awards include the Plimpton Prize. She teaches at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Q&A by Tanya Rey
TR: Where did the idea for this story come from?
CH: A trip to Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona. And if I go back really far, to my sixth grade science class. We built a model of Biosphere 2 and then wrote individual reports on different biomes. I was assigned “tundra,” which was a lot like when I got “Cape Verde Islands” in the Africa unit and “North Dakota” in the 50 states unit. There wasn’t even any tundra in the biosphere.
Really, there’s so much in this story I wish I could take credit for inventing, but the real place was wonderfully crazy all on its own. The whole idea of an enclosed mini-Earth where nothing went quite right was a gift to me. The least I could do was add some cannibalism.
TR: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
CH: It’s a story with a lot of moving parts, and it was longer than anything I’d done before. Trying to chart a semi-functional community’s descent into total chaos was really hard: a lot of the challenges were just logistical, like thinking through how they could be locked inside, and what the exit code “rules” would be. Then the more intricate the plot got, the more challenging the pacing and overall stage management became. The crazier the stuff that was happening, the more chances for the characters’ responses to seem totally unbelievable.
TR: So let’s cut to the chase (pardon the pun): Does Igor end up eating the narrator? Or does she manage to make it out alive?
CH: I think he thinks of her as his “Eve”; he doesn’t particularly want to eat her, he wants her to love him and join him in a big happy feast of all the others. Since the narrator isn’t going to be enthused about that, maybe then Igor would eat her. But I like to think she makes it out. I think Igor’s affection for her would buy her the time she needs to come up with an escape.
TR: The use of faith and religion is so interesting in this story. Can you talk a little bit about that? Have you ever had any experiences with people like Igor or the Apostle?
CH: Faith ended up being so important to the story, but it was a really late addition. For many, many drafts, the narrator had essentially zero backstory: no motivation for coming to NovaTerra, no purpose for the money she’d earn, no family history. I knew this was a problem, but for several months I half-convinced myself it was some clever thing the story was doing. Like, there’d be so much else going on that the reader wouldn’t even notice that the narrator had no personality.
A couple of years earlier I’d seen the documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, and found myself thinking that the early days of the Temple sounded pretty great. There’s a reason people joined up; it isn’t crazy to want the welcome and security of a chosen family, to feel sure and assured that you’re living in the right way. Partway through the writing of “Life Among the Terranauts” I was reading an article about fringe religions when it suddenly clicked that this was a key to the narrator’s character, a huge part of her life before NovaTerra.
Maybe I’m fascinated by religious fervor because I haven’t encountered people like Igor or the Apostle in real life, and my natural state is one of doubt. I understand the seductiveness of certainty.
TR: I found the descriptions of NovaTerra to be really skillfully done. Now that I know the setting was largely based on that of Biosphere 2, I’m wondering: Was it a challenge to distinguish the actual place from what you imagined, and make it your own for this story?
CH: Early on, the story was tied way too tightly to details of the actual place. I would stop in the middle of a paragraph to look something up about oxygen levels or crop yields, or which plants were actually grown in the rainforest. This was nutty, but it took me a long time to let go. Maybe because Biosphere 2 as a research topic was so much fun, I kept trying to shoehorn facts into the story that had no business being there. I think I finally felt NovaTerra was mine when I got through the first draft where I completely destroyed it. Once the characters had eaten lemur, endangered fish and hummingbirds, I felt pretty free to mess with whatever I wanted.
TR: Do you typically write stories that take place in unusual settings? What usually draws you in? Is it setting? Character? Voice?
CH: What draws me in is always something different. I’m a sucker for curious settings, but I’ve also written stories that are a riff on a certain voice or event. Or television show. Sometimes a phenomenon, like a family hibernating through winter, or people stuck living inside the old Oregon Trail computer game. I try to be totally undiscriminating in my inspirations. I don’t know how other writers have fun if they aren’t.
TR: All of the characters in this story have very unique last names that they go by, but the narrator is never named. Why? Was this a conscious choice from the start?
CH: It was. The very distinct last names were chosen mostly because I knew I was working with a large cast, and I needed ways to help the reader (and me!) keep them all straight. The narrator was always nameless, and for a long time that fit my general lack of understanding of who she was.
At one point, I planned on a scene where Igor calls her by her first name at dinner, letting slip that way to the others how he feels about her (the secret affair was more secret in that draft). But the scene was unnecessary, and I couldn’t come up with a name that I thought fit her better than namelessness.
TR: Do you like beets?
CH: I really hate them. I hate them almost as much as the narrator. “Beet” is one of the first words I look up in any foreign language so I can avoid it on menus.
TR: How long did it take you to complete this story?
CH: About a year. I wrote quite a few of the early pages in just a few days. The current first paragraph was the first paragraph I wrote, and survived every edit almost unchanged. The middle and end were much more recalcitrant.
TR: What are you working on now?
CH: Supposedly a novel, which makes me miss the illusion of competence I have with stories. I know it’s an illusion—every story is its own thorny problem to solve—but the novel is the thorniest yet.
TR: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
CH: From Ron Carlson: “I write about my personal experiences whether I’ve had them or not. I send myself on the journey.”